No too long ago I returned from Japan, where I participated in a sesshin (an intensive sitting over several days) and paid a visit to my Master. Sekkei Harada Roshi, my ordination Master, was in the hospital while I was visiting the temple. On the last day, I was invited to the hospital to see him, and I enthusiastically agreed to go. I thought that spending some time by his bedside, talking a bit about my trip and events that had recently happened in my life might be a pleasant moment for both of us. But when I arrived it was immediately clear that he was not well enough for light banter. Though he smiled at his helper’s jokes, he was not able to engage in much conversation and seemed relieved just to lie back in bed and close his eyes.
It’s hard when someone we care about intensely is not well and, because of that, not able to interact with us as they have in the past. Recently I watched a film called “The Notebook” which, as many of you probably already know, is as much about memory loss as it is about love. In it, the main characters are a couple, one of whom has lost much of her memory and therefore most of her ability to recognize her family.
These moments show us, in poignant relief, the fact that we are each re-created in every moment, that we are only able to relate to our environment from the perspective of our own thoughts and physical manifestation, and that the “us” that seems to be arising in any given moment is as much a product of the conditions of now as it is a product of the past. Even when we can’t remember the past, the conditions that have occurred are an influence on the moment now, like the woman with Alzheimer’s disease whose children come to visit. That her children are present is a result of past actions. However, since her body/mind is now only able to experience the events of the day, this determines her personality and her preferences, quite independent of what her family is expecting. So this type of disease offers us a clear cut opportunity to practice meeting someone completely in the moment, even though we’ve had a relationship. It’s a gift, though a bittersweet one because we would prefer to be able to interact in a way that supports our view of who they are, rather than our experience of them in the present.